Pathway in the autumn forest

At it’s root my love of running is just an extension of a deeper desire to move, to walk, hike, climb, travel and race.  This need to move is something I feel I inherited from my mother.  She’s not a runner or a big international traveler, but she does love a good road trip.

When I was growing up she would think nothing of packing up us kids in the car and driving across several states to visit Niagara Falls or Lake Erie, an Atlantic coast beach or the Pro Football Hall of Fame.  In winter she would sometimes take us to a Holiday Inn a couple hours away just so we could swim in it’s heated indoor pool.  She taught me that freedom is movement, limited only by a lack of imagination.


Earlier this year I thought it would be fun to combine her favorite form of movement with mine:  a road trip to a long distance running race.  The Tussey Mountainback Ultramarathon is held in State College, PA about three hours of beautiful autumn driving from my hometown near Pittsburgh.  And this year it was the site of the USATF 50 Mile National Championship.


Three weeks before the race I hit a low point.  I was stressed out from my new position at work and not fully recovered from a busy summer of racing.  My body felt like it was right on the verge of getting sick or injured or both, so I dialed back the mileage and ramped up the amount of sleep I got each night.  The interesting thing was that as the body recovered, my confidence eroded from the lack of intense training.  Funny how that works, huh?  On the flight to Pittsburgh I felt strong of body, yet weak of mind.


After a day in my hometown visiting with the extended family, my Mom and I drove out to State College.  At the pre-race pasta dinner, we were treated to some training advice from last year’s winner, Zach Bitter.  He told us that he once put in a 600 mile training month.  That’s 20 miles a day!  Race director, Mike Casper, introduced us to 93 year old running legend, George Etzweiler.  He was running the race as part of a relay.  His team, “The Old Men of the Mountains” had an average age of 65 and included his 10 year old great grand daughter.  What an inspiration.

The morning of the race I wasn’t sure who was more nervous, me or my Mom.  The weather was cool, crisp and windy.  The day before we drove the first few miles of the course.  It was all uphill, not too steep, but a long, slow, steady incline.  We turned around at mile three.  I didn’t want to see anymore.  This year there were 180 runners in the ultramarathon and 108 relays teams that consisted of 2 to 8 runners.  The course was mostly gravel roads with lots of hills.  Either you’re going up or down with not a whole lot of in between.


At the starting line I recognized some faces I’d seen in running magazines and websites:  Matt Flaherty, David Riddle, Connie Gardner, Cassie Scallon and Scott Dunlap, who has one of the most popular ultra running sites, A Trail Runner’s Blog.  Scott always runs with a camera, so his photos have a unique “in-the-moment” perspective.  There are not many sports where you can line up with and compete against some of your heroes.  Well, maybe not compete against, but at least I can line up next to them.

The race itself was bit of a blur for me.  i know it’s hard to believe that a 50 mile race could be a blur, but that’s really how it felt.  I spent the day totally in a zone, thinking only about fueling, hydrating and trying not to push it too hard.  The temperature was in the high 40’s, a perfect “not too hot, not too cold” balance.

I think that long three week taper in training really helped to get me to the starting line healthy and injury-free.  The whole day I keep thinking how lucky I am to be in this beautiful place and doing this thing that I love.  And to have my Mom waiting for me at the finish line.  Life is good.

Through to be honest I wasn’t feeling all that good at mile 45 during the last long ascent.  But once I got over that final hump it was a fun fast finish.  Psychologically there’s nothing better than ending  with a smooth downhill cruise.  With five miles to go I tried to calculate my pace and probable finishing time, but my carb-depleted brain wasn’t firing on all cylinders.  My goal was to run sub 7:30, but with a couple miles to go I decided to push for 7:20.

My brain tricked me into believing that there was someone right on my tail getting ready to pass me.  I pushed even harder, not wanting to lose a place so late in the race.  It wasn’t until the last 100 yards that I finally allowed myself a glace over my shoulder.  Of course no one was there.  I crossed the finish line with a big smile on my face.

My Mom was also smiling.  I felt like I had been gone a long long time.  The clock said 7 hours and 17 minutes, but it seemed like I’d been away for more than a week.  Back at the car, my Mom gave me her leftover breakfast.  The bacon and hashbrowns tasted like heaven.

Afterwards we checked with the timekeeper and realized that I finished in 14th place overall and 5th in the over 40 Master’s division.  And since this was the National Championship I’d be getting a $100 check from the USATF.  Though I was disappointed to learn that it wouldn’t be one of those giant checks you see on TV.  I’ve always wanted to try and deposit one of those bad boys into an ATM.

After the race there was pizza, beer and pulled pork sandwiches.  Runners swapped stories as the sun dipped over the hills and a local bluegrass band jammed the day away.  It was the perfect end to a perfect race.  On the drive back to Pittsburgh my Mom and I decided that as long as I could still run and she could still drive, we’d make this an annual traditional.  I’m already looking forward to next year.